I-70 Expansion Foes Seek to Halt Stormwater Project

I-70 lawsuit plaintiffs Brad Evans (at podium) and Kyle Zeppelin (in dark suit) rally with supporters at Denver's federal courthouse in July.
I-70 lawsuit plaintiffs Brad Evans (at podium) and Kyle Zeppelin (in dark suit) rally with supporters at Denver's federal courthouse in July. Alan Prendergast
Opponents of the expansion of I-70 through northeast Denver have filed a motion in federal court seeking to halt any further action on the $1.8 billion project by the Colorado Department of Transportation — as well as any further construction work on a series of stormwater-diversion measures undertaken by the City of Denver. The plaintiffs, including RINO developer Kyle Zeppelin, claim they will suffer "irreparable harm" if both projects, which they regard as closely related, aren't stopped dead in their tracks.

Filed late last week, the motion contends that CDOT and the Federal Highway Administration "have failed to inform the public of the true scope and impacts" of the highway expansion. "Granting a stay would promote the public’s interest in an accurate and transparent administrative process in which the agencies are informed and the public is permitted to meaningfully participate."

The expansion focuses on a congested stretch of I-70 between I-25 and Chambers Road. It would replace a crumbling six-lane viaduct with a below-grade, partially covered superhighway expanded to ten lanes; officials say that a four-acre "lid" of greenery on top of the highway as it moves through the Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods would help reunite communities that were disrupted by the viaduct construction in the 1960s. But opponents maintain that the project will only create further disruption and environmental hazards in what is already one of the city's poorest areas (and reputedly the most polluted zip code in the country).

Several other lawsuits have challenged either the highway expansion or Denver's stormwater plan, known as P2PH (shorthand for Platte to Park Hill Stormwater Systems), on environmental or economic grounds. The Zeppelin suit is unique, though, in its efforts to portray the two projects as deeply interdependent. City and state officials have long insisted that the stormwater and highway projects are needed infrastructure improvements that are each being developed on their own merits — despite a long paper trail that indicates considerable discussion and collaborative planning. The Zeppelin lawsuit claims that the two projects are, in fact, joined at the hip, and that the Federal Highway Administration should have taken into account the environmental impacts of the stormwater project (which involves construction through the contaminated soils of Superfund sites) in its review of the highway expansion under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). A central contention of the suit is that CDOT and the City of Denver worked so hard to portray the two projects as unrelated so that CDOT could avoid including the drainage-project impacts in its NEPA review.

Although the City of Denver is not a party to the case, CDOT is helping to fund the stormwater improvements through an intergovernmental agreement. Some components of the drainage project, including reconstruction of Globeville Landing Park to allow for a greater outfall into the Platte River, are already under way. Among the dire consequences that the suit contends will occur if the project isn't suspended by court order: "more hazardous materials will be disturbed and spread at Globeville Landing Park (in Superfund Site OU2); more private property rights necessary to complete P2PH will be acquired; the City Park Golf Course (National Register of Historic Places) will close for construction; 39th Avenue (in Superfund Site OU1) will be destroyed and excavated, disturbing and spreading more hazardous materials; and FHWA/CDOT will break ground on the trench for the lowered highway segment (in Superfund Site OU1), disturbing and spreading still more hazardous materials."

One of the attorneys in the case is Aaron Goldhamer, who is also representing plaintiffs in a separate Denver court case opposing the "reconfiguring" of City Park Golf Course for stormwater detention. In a press release, Goldhamer points out that the injunction could prevent CDOT from helping to fund the Platte to Park Hill project, and speculates that if that happens, “the City might scrap their Platte to Park Hill project. After all, they did not have any plan for it in Denver’s 2014 Storm Drainage Master Plan, before CDOT apparently realized they needed to account for more drainage issues and talked Denver into helping them out.”
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast